Op-Ed: Human Enhancement

March 8, 2013

By Nick Boire

The last month was a busy one in the world of medical innovation and human enhancement. The FDA approved the first bionic eye, telepathy has been induced in rats, and The New York Times published a lengthy article on the abuse and dangers of Adderall and other ADHD medications. While enhancing technologies may be used to treat illness, they can also be used to improve upon what we might define as normal/typical function.  Enhancing technologies that push our limits, whether physical or mental, are appearing rapidly, whether or not we are prepared, leaving us to wonder how we ought to react –should these technologies be limited or encouraged?

Determining what is ethically permissible in enhancement is tricky, because the desire to improve ourselves is an essential part of who we are; we continually strive to be better. So, in a sense, enhancement is not crossing the line, a transgression, so much as pushing the line forward. After all, there was a time when vaccination, an enhancement that is immensely effective for preventing communicable diseases, was considered crude and barbaric, and efforts to move the science of vaccination forward were conducted haphazardly without concern for safety and or social impact. But vaccination was new when it was viewed in this way, as many of these enhancing technologies are new and unfamiliar today. If they were broadly adopted, it’s likely that they would eventually be broadly viewed as routine and acceptable, like vaccines.

Let’s look at the goals, and consider whether they are inherently sinister. There is nothing inherently wrong with many of the goals of enhancement. There is nothing inherently unethical with surgically altering one’s appearance, staying awake for 60 hours, or running five miles in twenty minutes.

Our challenge then becomes sorting out the risks and benefits, and the biggest problem may be the pressures that unbalance these sorts of evaluations when these enhancements move from being possibilities to becoming expected adaptations.

For example, imagine that UPS and FedEx merge into a massive corporation that completely dominates the shipping industry and requires its employees to take drugs in order to stay awake longer, in order to guarantee two-day global shipping?  This sort of coercion is unethical. Enhancing technologies of this sort only benefit an individual if it confers a competitive advantage. In this case, it would seem that UPS-Ex is the only party that will actually receive any direct benefits resulting from employees taking on the risks associated with becoming enhanced. Yet, employees would undoubtedly still feel immense pressures to participate in this new normal.

Some categories of enhancements have a more positive intrinsic value, and present a simpler analysis for evaluating risks and benefits. The individual receiving such an enhancement could objectively expect some form of benefit, regardless of their ‘competition’. For example, enhancements that promote well-being and health, like vaccines. The positive benefits of good health extend further than the patient; healthy individuals are less likely to become infected and infect others. Such enhancements leave us capable of greater, more meaningful contributions to society.

Intelligence and cognitive enhancements clearly have an intrinsic value, after all, who would not want to be smarter? This type of enhancement would benefit others through their interaction and association with a smarter individual.  Perhaps we could all stand to benefit from artificially improving our cognitive and intellectual abilities.

Clearly, enhancing technologies are not without risks, for example addiction to medication like Adderall has been problematic. But, we don’t need to ‘throw the baby out with the bath water.’ These are risks that can be managed, just as they are managed with medical treatments, with appropriate review, regulation and oversight. Instead of restricting access and locking enhancements away, we should encourage their careful development. By pursuing these innovations and discovering safer, and more cost-efficient advances, we can best prepare ourselves for the innovations that follow. As human-enhancing technologies continue to become unveiled in the upcoming years, we should also develop a more proactive approach that allows us to address difficult ethical questions and challenges that come with these technologies in the most thorough and thoughtful manner possible.

Nick Boire is a Research Assistant with the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics and an ScM Graduate Student at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health

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